Response to: "If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about"
June 1, 2006 10:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting pretty tired of hearing the line "if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about" in regards to what's happening right now in Washington. I've heard some long articulate responses to this, but what's a good one or two sentence response that succinctly points out the error in this line of thinking?
posted by WetherMan to Law & Government (54 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I once read a good response that went along the lines that everyone has things to hide, or the idea that if you have done nothing wrong, then you should be fine with the entire world viewing a video tape of what you do, etc.

I'd still like to put a quick backhand retort on this one, because I hear it way too often.
posted by WetherMan at 10:20 AM on June 1, 2006

Who decides what "wrong" is, and what happens when your definition starts to disagree with the government?
posted by smackfu at 10:22 AM on June 1, 2006

"Wrong according to whom? Whomever happens to be in power?"
posted by bingo at 10:25 AM on June 1, 2006

Best answer: From Bruce Schneier:
  • "If I'm not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me."
  • "Because the government gets to define what's wrong, and they keep changing the definition."
  • "Because you might do something wrong with my information."

posted by Rash at 10:26 AM on June 1, 2006 [6 favorites]

Or what happens when the government thinks you've done something wrong? And now you're not allowed a lawyer, a trial, whatever...
posted by occhiblu at 10:26 AM on June 1, 2006

The idea that "if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about" assumes that the government is full of good people that would not abuse their power, ever. Even if this were true now, we cannot be sure it'll be true in the future. The US Republic was founded on the idea that humans are corruptible and we need to have checks and balances against corruption built into our government. Because corrupt people will oppress those who have done nothing wrong.
posted by visual mechanic at 10:27 AM on June 1, 2006

Best answer: "Mind if I make a video of you fucking your wife then?"
posted by cardboard at 10:28 AM on June 1, 2006 [3 favorites]

"So you trust the government completely? Not just this administration, but all of them? You trusted Nixon?"
posted by MrCheese!!! at 10:30 AM on June 1, 2006

"That's not what the Constitution says. You should read it sometime."
posted by JekPorkins at 10:30 AM on June 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

everyone has things to hide

When discussing the use of encryption, people usually use the analogy of locking doors or closing the blinds. I don't stay up at night hatching terrorist plots, but I still close the blinds and lock my doors.

Maybe you could ask them if they'd mind if you looked over their medical and financial records. I certainly wouldn't want anyone looking at mine, but I have nothing to hide. I'd worry you'd get a, "But that's different!" sort of response, though I'm not sure it really is. The whole point is that, even though there's nothing 'wrong' that you're hiding, you like keeping your private information private.

Schneier's a great guy in this regard; I like the quotes Rash posted.
posted by fogster at 10:34 AM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

"So it doesn't bother you that within the last few years the US has held a few hundred people without charge or access to the courts, and then released them when it decided they'd done nothing wrong?"

"So it doesn't cause you concern that people are released from death row all the time after it's found they've done nothing wrong?"

"Other people who have done nothing wrong have spent years in maximum security prisons. Perhaps *more* oversight is need, rather than less?"
posted by MrCheese!!! at 10:35 AM on June 1, 2006

"If I've done nothing wrong, then my opinion matters more than yours does and I think you should give me your wallet."
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:37 AM on June 1, 2006

Response by poster: fogster: that's more or less the problem. People see the things we're monitoring people for as somehow different then the sorts of privacy they themselves enjoy and want to preserve.
posted by WetherMan at 10:37 AM on June 1, 2006

In the Maltese Falcon the district attorney tells Sam Spade, "If you have nothing to hide, why are you concerned?", and Sam answers back, "Everyone has something to hide."
posted by jasper411 at 10:39 AM on June 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

The idea that "if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about" assumes that the government is full of good people that would not abuse their power, ever. Even if this were true now, we cannot be sure it'll be true in the future.

This is the mantra of the complacent middle class. It's a faith that they have that the government can do no wrong. It's difficult to shake them of this, and all of the arguments.

I was having this particluar chat with my ex. She's very much a part of the complacent middle class. I actually used, "So, you wouldn't mind if the government made a videotape of us having sex? It's allowed under the current administration's policies." She said that they would never do that. I said that they could if they wanted to, especially if they were just about to change the rules so that sex out of wedlock was illegal. And she continued to insist that they'd never do that, and even if they did, it'd only be a short time before the people who did it were out of office and things became more sane, and she'd just live with it until then.

The other usual comeback from that angle is that "it's the actions of one person inside the government, not the government."

It's like telling a christian that they can't trust God. There is no witty comeback from our end.
posted by SpecialK at 10:39 AM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sorry to say it, but in this day and age you can get into trouble even if you haven't done anything wrong. It's an issue of trust. We put faith and trust in our leaders to do the right thing, but they're no holier than you or I.

Here's a good retort: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."
posted by spakto at 10:40 AM on June 1, 2006

cardboard's answer, weirdly chosen as 'best answer,' is funny, but not realistic. I know right-wingers who would, without missing a beat, answer "You can't make a video of me fucking my wife, but good government surveilance sometimes means checking in on innocent people, and I'm not exempt." On the other hand, cardboard's answer is also a non-sequitir and a false analogy, and it might even start a fight.
posted by bingo at 10:41 AM on June 1, 2006

"That view isn't a reason to support the policy. All that view is a way to expose the true nature of my opposition."
posted by dios at 10:41 AM on June 1, 2006

Response by poster: bingo: I just thought cardboard's answer was hilarious. It's obviously not a great example of a real thinking response.
posted by WetherMan at 10:44 AM on June 1, 2006

Bruce's responses are good at the cerebral level. For those who brush those reasons off I tend to ask a few very personal questions "So are you cut?" "How much money did you make last year?" "How many sex toys do you own?" "Your wife, does she spit or swallow?" That kind of stuff tends to drive the point home that most people have stuff they'd rather not have everyone know.

Also most people feel a bit of anxiety's when a cop is following directly behind them when their driving. Pursue the concept of how awful it would be if you felt it all the time.
posted by Mitheral at 10:44 AM on June 1, 2006

"There is absolutely no reason to believe that the enfrorcers won't do anything wrong. Authorities abusing their positions is basically the entire history of the world."
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:45 AM on June 1, 2006

Response by poster: dios: I'm probably too dense to parse that correctly, can you followup?
posted by WetherMan at 10:45 AM on June 1, 2006

"Fuck you."
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:48 AM on June 1, 2006

I like to drop my pants and shout, "You're absolutely right! I have NOTHING to hide!
How about YOU?!"

And then whisper, "It all about loss of privacy, you idiot."

/walks away, pants around the ankles
posted by UnclePlayground at 10:51 AM on June 1, 2006

I agree with the "personlize it" idea. When people asked me why I encrypt my email, I used to ask: "Do you write everything on postcards? They're cheaper than letters you know. Why pay for an envelope if you have nothing to hide?"

But now people don't write letters at all anymore, so the analogy fails.
posted by The Bellman at 10:55 AM on June 1, 2006

"I'll give YOU something to worry about!"

Alternatively, get a recording of someone famous and evil saying "If you got nothing to hide...", carry it around on a tape recorder and play it for the other person, and then ask them if they know who that is. "It's Hitler, you're quoting Hitler, you facist!" or Stalin, or whoever. Yeah, that would be cool.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:55 AM on June 1, 2006

"You're right, the government would never make trouble for an innocent person. I'm just going to call the Department of Homeland Security and tell them that you're a terrorist who plans to blow up the White House, okay? I'm sure it'll only take a few minutes to clear up the misunderstanding."
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:56 AM on June 1, 2006

"So you won't mind the new law requiring all letters to be written on postcards?"

The fact is that there's a large number of things that are wrong but not illegal. It's not illegal to cheat on your spouse, for example, even though it's wrong; is that something the government has a right to know?
posted by joannemerriam at 10:58 AM on June 1, 2006

Best answer: Yeah, the letters on postcards thing is the famous retort.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:03 AM on June 1, 2006

Bureaucracies make mistakes.
posted by StarForce5 at 11:08 AM on June 1, 2006

Wow, I thought I was talking to a patriot, but that's gotta be one of the most unamerican things I've ever heard anybody say.
posted by willnot at 11:12 AM on June 1, 2006

"How appropriate. You fight like a cow."
posted by reklaw at 11:14 AM on June 1, 2006 [3 favorites]

"And all along I thought you were a conservative who didn't trust government, didn't like big government, and believed in limiting the power of the state. When did you change your political philosophy, and why? Does this mean you'll start voting differently, too?"
posted by JekPorkins at 11:15 AM on June 1, 2006 [3 favorites]

Considering you're living in an absolute monarchy, where the king has asserted the right to imprison indefinitely, without charges, anyone he pleases (and has imprisoned thousands of people for almost five years on just such reasoning), I would think you'd be very, very, very wary of expanding surveillance; something might come to the attention of the king. Surveillance is incredibly dangerous when the surveillor has unchecked power over you.
posted by jellicle at 11:25 AM on June 1, 2006

joannemerriam writes "It's not illegal to cheat on your spouse, for example, even though it's wrong;"

Many states have criminal penalties on the books for adultery. The constitutionallity of those laws after Lawrence v. Texas is in question but it's still illegal.
posted by Mitheral at 11:30 AM on June 1, 2006

I've been thinking about this question recently in light of the Jefferson case and congress's response to it, so I would point out that the hue and cry over the FBI raiding a congressional office clearly shows that our politicians don't buy the "if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about" line of reasoning.
posted by TedW at 11:40 AM on June 1, 2006

Might be a bit over the heads of those you're speaking to, but:

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

-- Benjamin Franklin
posted by JanetLand at 11:42 AM on June 1, 2006

Ask them for the keys to their house.
posted by vraxoin at 12:19 PM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you watch someone long enough, you'll eventually find them doing something wrong.
posted by clunkyrobot at 12:25 PM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

My standard answer.
posted by kimota at 12:40 PM on June 1, 2006

The disturbing thing is that the rhetoric is too willing to conflate military ways and means with prosecutorial ways and means. I want the military and the quasi-military intelligence agencies to be free to do pretty much anything they feel is right, and am tolerant of collateral damage as the inevitable, if unfortunate, accompaninent. However, I don't think any military or quasi military means or resources ought to be applicable in "ordinary" criminal contexts, even quite abhorent crimes.

In other words, if an intelligence operations without criminal-law formalities catches you plotting to hijack a plane to fly into the White House for the glory (of insert cause here) -- I'm perfectly happy to see you carted off to a CIA offshore prison. American soldiers kill Iraqi and Afghani insurgents everyday on less or no "evidence," as they've done in all of America's wars, and no says credibly says it's illegal.

However, if a warrantless and not otherwise valid search catches you plotting to hijack a plane in order to collect $50 million in ransom for the glory of the giant mansion you plan to buy in a non-extradition treaty country -- that evidence ought to be completely inadmissable, even if it lets you roam free despite your undeniable guilt.

I would love to see someone in Washington trying to make these distinctions seriously, but I don't know of anyone who is.
posted by MattD at 2:30 PM on June 1, 2006

MattD, maybe those are the kind of distinctions that are meant to be left to a jury. You know, after the defendant has due process.

Now, it's pretty clear (to me, anyway, and maybe I'm wrong) that due process doesn't apply to what the military does outside the U.S. But I think due process should (and does) apply within the U.S., regardless of who the government official doing the enforcement is. The problem with the "if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear" claim is that, aside from it being total BS, it ignores due process.
posted by JekPorkins at 2:50 PM on June 1, 2006

Wetherman, dios' retort doesn't quite parse, in part because I think it's missing an "is", and because the word "opposition" is ambiguous. To be charitable, I think he meant "That position isn't a valid reason to support invasions of privacy, but holding that position does reveal unpleasant things about you."
posted by Bezbozhnik at 3:21 PM on June 1, 2006

We have a Constitution in this country that guarantees every American citizen the right to face his or her accusers in a court of law. This is the law. It is not up for debate:


“A Constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and of all the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It would probably never be understood by the public. Its nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves. That this idea was entertained by the framers of the American Constitution is not only to be inferred from the nature of the instrument, but from the language. Why else were some of the limitations found in the 9th section of the 1st article introduced? It is also in some degree warranted by their having omitted to use any restrictive term which might prevent its receiving a fair and just interpretation. In considering this question, then, we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding.”

--Marshall, CJ, in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316, 407 (1819).
posted by JekPorkins at 4:21 PM on June 1, 2006

If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

Because we all know no one in government with access to information about us could ever possibly make a mistake or do anything wrong themselves.
posted by juv3nal at 4:46 PM on June 1, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, this was my first post to the blue/green/teal and I appreciate all the responses. Maybe it'll encourage me to make my own post on the blue one day...
posted by WetherMan at 7:58 PM on June 1, 2006

"If you've got nothing to hide, why don't you post your credit card statements on the Internet?"

This neatly demonstrates this little idea called "a private life", which if they agree exists invalidates the "if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about".

If it's the government, this always seems more appropriate: "If you've done nothing wrong, you have everything to worry about. If you've done something wrong, you have nothing to worry about."
posted by tommorris at 1:48 AM on June 2, 2006

One other point that has not been raised. Most people who are "nobodies" realistically have little to fear from a draconian surveillance program (at least the odds of harm are very low). But, the organizations they belong to or support sure do. Businesses, unions, charitable organizations, political organizations, churches, hobbyist groups, universities, etc. all have activities, accidents, statements, or practices that could be embarrassing if framed in the right way or taken out of context. They also make strategic decisions that could be undermined by inside knowledge of the group.

If you combine a massive surveillance program, long-term storage of the data collected, and little control over how that information gets accessed, you can guarantee that it will be abused. So to someone currently defending the Bush administration, I would ask them "Would you grant a Democratic administration unfettered access to all the phone records (or whatever) of your churches, congressmen, anti-abortion protestors, Fox news reporters, fundraisers, and PACs?"
posted by Tallguy at 7:08 AM on June 2, 2006

Also, I suspect most people have not thought through some of the creative uses this type of data can be put towards. If the reports are true, and the NSA has constructed a database of the origin and destination of all calls, here are a few potential applications:

* Check all the calls to gay organizations or chat lines. See if you have any business leaders, politicians, fundraisers, political activists, university presidents, priests, pastors, etc. who might be embarrassed by such revelations. Heck, even straight sex lines might work.

* Check the incoming and outgoing calls of reporters against government employees to check for leaks.

* Check who opposing candidates are calling. The pace of donor reporting means that embarrassing donors can be dealt with in a timely manner by a campaign. With this information, you can hammer an opponent when they least expect it or can defend against it.

* Cross-check a candidates private line calls against official calls. Are they talking to anyone worth investigating? (Mistress, less savory political associates, etc.)

* Look for flurries of calls by a campaign's workers to get forewarned of scandals or problems they may be experiencing. (i.e. slam them with your embarrassing revelations just as they fire their campaign manager)

I am sure that others can come up with even more nefarious and creative applications. Just remember, these tools are being built specifically to go after (terrorist) organizations. Without proper safeguards, we are reliant on the good will of those in control of these tools to not use them on other organizations.
posted by Tallguy at 7:28 AM on June 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

"26.5 million veterans hadn't done anything wrong, either."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:44 AM on June 2, 2006

specialk, you can tell your ex that there was DEFINITELY a time when that was common practice.

And that it lasted for a VERY long time.

J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI director from 1924 until 1972.

He made it his business to place surveillance on anyone and everyone, using the information to blackmail others into doing (or not doing) whatever he wanted. Thank God there were some who refused to yield to his despicable practices.

Hoover had Martin Luther King placed under extensive surveillance. The FBI sent recordings revealing King's extramarital affairs to King and his wife, along with a letter suggesting that King commit suicide or else his "filthy, abnormal fraudlent self [would be] bared to the nation."
posted by marsha56 at 10:55 AM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

That always makes me think of Guantanamo Bay and the stories of innocent people that came out of there. People who were swept off the "battlefeild," but instead were actually sold to our government.

Innocent people are imprisoned by our government constantly, in a variety of situations, and how anyone could think any different is just unbelievable to me.
posted by scazza at 9:18 AM on September 11, 2006

"That is a false dilemma"
posted by ed\26h at 3:01 PM on September 11, 2006

The assertion is so dumb that it begs for an equally shark-headed answer.

Clearly governments have things to hide. Some of them are hidden even though the government has done nothing wrong.

Everyone has the same, legitimate reasons for having to hide things that the government has.

For example: If you've nothing to hide, reveal publicly, along with a photo of your 8-year-old daughter, where she goes to school, and what time she walks home. And what her favorite candy is.
posted by Twang at 4:43 PM on September 11, 2006

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